Lawmakers split over bill to ban plastic foam to-go containers

Lawmakers split over bill to ban plastic foam to-go containers
Plastic foam containers would be banned from food vendors under House Bill 533. (Source: David Tran | Capital News Service)

By David Tran

Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A bill in the General Assembly that bans expanded polystyrene containers, also known as plastic foam, at all food vendors by 2025 currently is in limbo while both chambers hash out a Senate amendment rejected by the House.

House Bill 533 would prohibit food vendors, including restaurants, catering trucks and grocery stores, from serving food and beverages in plastic foam containers, plates, cups and trays. The ban does not extend to packaging of unprepared food.

Del. Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond, is chief patron of the bill, which has two phases. First, food chain establishments with 20 locations or more would be required to phase out the plastic foam containers by July 1, 2023. The next deadline for all food vendors to eliminate use of such containers would be July 1, 2025. Carr’s bill exempts institutions such as schools and correctional facilities from the ban.

The bill passed the House (55-44) and the Senate passed it (23-13) with an amendment proposed by Sen. David R. Suetterlein, R-Roanoke. The amendment adds a reenactment clause stipulating the bill will not be enacted until it is voted on and passed again next year by the General Assembly.

The House overwhelming (99-1) rejected the amendment, and the Senate didn’t budge insisting (38-1) on the reenactment clause. As of Feb. 27, the bill was assigned to a conference committee to debate its fate.

Co-patron Del. Paul E. Krizek, D-Fairfax, said the reenactment clause is “a way to kick the can down the road.”

“I was really hoping that we had come to a good compromise,” Krizek said, in reference to the two deadlines given to vendors to stop distributing polystyrene materials.

Krizek’s bill HB 1046 was incorporated into Carr’s bill. He said his bill stemmed from Maine’s prohibition of polystyrene containers that passed in 2019.

“Nothing we use for a few minutes should be allowed to pollute our oceans and rivers and threaten wildlife for centuries,” Krizek said via email.

Expanded polystyrene foam, widely known as Styrofoam, breaks down into small pieces and takes an estimated hundreds to thousands of years to biodegrade, according to Elly Boehmer, the state director of Environment Virginia. The organization is an affiliate of Environment America, which works to advocate for environmental issues locally and nationally.

“Polystyrene is one of the most commonly found types of litter,” Boehmer said. “By reducing this type of litter from being an option in our environment, it would do a lot to protect our wildlife and our ecosystems.”

Environment Virginia launched a campaign called “Wildlife Over Waste” in 2018 with the goal to reduce the use of plastic foam cups and containers.

The organization campaigned across the state and gathered enough signed petitions to meet with Carr and draft the bill.

Carr said in an email interview that she introduced the bill because polystyrene is a serious contributor to pollution and poses a health risk to humans and animals.

Businesses that still use polystyrene containers after the deadlines will receive a civil penalty up to $50 for each day of violation. Food vendors may be granted a one year exemption under the basis of “undue economic hardship,” such as inability to obtain alternatives to polystyrene containers.

Alternatives to plastic foam containers include recyclable materials such as biodegradable paper or plastics, which can be more expensive. However, the additional cost would be minimal if it is passed on to consumers, Boehmer said.

“It does reduce the cost of picking up litter and the cost is quite small,” Boehmer said. “If you get a $10 meal that comes in a to-go container, the additional cost would be less than 1% of that added to your total cost.”

The bill also empowers the Litter Control and Recycling Fund Advisory Board, which works to eliminate littering while encouraging recycling, to help oversee a newly established Litter Control and Recycling Fund. Any collected civil penalties will go directly into the fund. The advisory board’s proposed additional responsibilities include raising public awareness on the dangers of polystyrene and promoting alternatives to plastic foam containers.

Maine and Maryland have passed similar bills to ban polystyrene food service containers in 2019. Several states, such as Oregon, Montana and New Jersey, have introduced such legislation in the past year.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.